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Former USDA Officials Lobby to Block Agriculture’s Plans to Relocate Research Offices

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Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Ga., is an ally in the cause, but there is little time left for Congress to block the moves. Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Ga., is an ally in the cause, but there is little time left for Congress to block the moves. Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP file photo

The holiday season toward the end of a Congress is a difficult time to exercise one’s constitutional right to petition the government.

Ever since the Agriculture Department unveiled its plan last August to move two key research units outside the Washington, D.C.,  “bubble,” many employees, former employees and outside stakeholders have expressed puzzlement.

Secretary Sonny Perdue cited cost savings and rural recruitment advantages to justify his plan to solicit bids from localities to be the new home to some 700 employees of USDA’s Economic Research Service and National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

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But dozens of science and research organizations have sought to block the planned move they see as poorly thought-out, that is being done outside the normal office relocation procedures run by the General Services Administration, and that could drain talent and possibly politicize research without saving money.

On Wednesday and Thursday of this week, three highly credentialed opponents of Agriculture’s plan were shepherded to a dozen or more congressional offices by a strategist from the American Statistical Association to make their case that lawmakers should block the move.

Their hallway comments to Government Executive suggest they’ve faced tough sledding, but aren’t giving up.

The 2018 farm bill “is moving too quickly, and members of both the House and Senate think it’s too late to get specific language” halting the office moves, said Catherine Woteki, a professor of nutrition at Iowa State University who was Agriculture undersecretary and chief scientist during the Obama administration. The same is probably true for an appropriations bill, she said.

The other obstacle is that under Perdue’s solicitation plan, 136 stakeholders—county economic development divisions, companies and nonprofits—have applied to become hosts of the offices.

“With 136 applications, the members who would be our champion are holding back—in case their district is the winner of the lottery,” said Jack Payne, senior vice president and leader of the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences in Gainesville. Even House Appropriations Agriculture Subcommittee Chairman Robert Aderholt, R-Ala., represents an applicant, he added.

“That’s doing it like the Publishers Clearing House,” added Gale Buchanan, a former undersecretary and chief scientist under the George W. Bush administration who traveled from Georgia to participate in the lobbying. He expressed frustration at the department’s assertion that one reason to leave D.C. is the pending expiration of the leases for ERS and NIFA, noting he sees vacant space in Beltsville, Md., and Arlington, Va., which the National Science Foundation vacated.

Instead of moving people, why not do more telecommuting, Buchanan asked. Perdue’s planned “cost savings in rent could be more than offset by the need to travel from 49 states” to the unnamed new location.

But the larger message the three delivered to lawmakers goes beyond efficient property management to respect for the long-term value of government-initiated agriculture research in addressing the future of global food security in an era of climate change.

“Agriculture is vastly changing because technology and innovation are moving faster than at any time in history,” said Payne, mentioning genomic research, the Internet of Things, precision agriculture, robotics and bio sensors that “today’s farmer in 10 years won’t recognize.”

The issues are “interdisciplinary,” which is why professionals “from land-grant universities come to D.C. all the time to meet with other agencies”—the Environmental Protection Agency, the Interior and Defense departments, the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research, Payne said. The National Institute of Food and Agriculture from its base in the nation’s capital has always been a “convenor.” So putting it in some place “like Nebraska would make my job harder.”

Buchanan pointed to a line graph showing that the government’s spending on agricultural research has not kept up with funding for the National Institutes of Health or the NSF, not to mention what is being spent by competitors in China, he said.  

The plan to move offices “is not at all science-based,” Woteki added. One problem in getting lawmakers’ support for the offices is that “the general public doesn’t think of food research” as being as important as farming, she stressed. There’s also food safety, costs, and availability—“all of which have their roots in the agricultural research”—that she and fellow specialists fear will be disrupted if the offices leave the Washington community.

To be sure, the two-day lobbying blitz has highlighted some allies. Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Ga., in whose offices Government Executive met the lobbyists, is one, along with Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., and Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan. Resistance to Perdue’s plan has also been vocalized for months by D.C. area lawmakers such as House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., the three lobbyists said.

Congress, however, given pressing issues such as funding the government by its Dec. 7 deadline, may be running out of time and vehicles with which to intervene.

Charles S. Clark joined Government Executive in the fall of 2009. He has been on staff at The Washington Post, Congressional Quarterly, National Journal, Time-Life Books, Tax Analysts, the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, and the National Center on Education and the Economy. He has written or edited online news, daily news stories, long features, wire copy, magazines, books, and organizational media strategies.

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